South Africa’s exit from the World Cup – the first time ever that a host nation has failed to get through the first round – hasn’t punctured the buoyant mood here. Partly because of the victory against the former world champions, France; partly because it was, deep down, always expected; partly because the team was so low-ranked that it did well to be competitive at all; but also because France and Italy and all the other African teams except Ghana also went out. If such a fate could befall even the title holders, it was no disgrace.
A deeper reason is that South Africans of all races are proud to have been chosen as hosts and are determined to show the world that they deserved it and that they are good party-givers who will remain good hosts to the end. Everyone agrees that things have gone pretty well so far. There have been glitches, but nothing too bad and while the threat of an electrical workers strike still hangs in the air, the national determination that nothing will mar the event is probably too strong for anything too bad to happen. This is, in a way, quite remarkable for the drum-beat of a threatened pogrom against foreigners after the Cup continues and meanwhile the unemployment figures are absolutely terrible. In the last quarter, although the economy is now briskly recovering, another 79,000 jobs were lost and the mood of anger and desperation among younger Africans is palpable. Unemployment is nearly 40 per cent but trade unions are demanding pay increases of four times the rate of inflation: a remarkable tribute to the huge degree of inflexibility guaranteed by the labour laws and to the general trade union failure to recognise that if you keep pushing up the price of labour, employers will economise on labour. Whichever way you take it, it’s an extremely unhappy scene and the potential for a social explosion is considerable.
But while South Africa’s exit has caused a sales slump for flag sellers, everyone is cock-a-hoop that other things are working so well. The fan who barged into the England dressing room uninvited was charged in court this morning, showing an unusual expedition and firmness. In the case of other crimes against visiting journalists or fans the police have been efficiency itself, capturing burglars, returning stolen goods, sending the villains promptly to jail and generally making the justice system work like clockwork – producing a growing demand that this ought to be their normal behaviour (an impossible dream). Despite being a portly man of 68 President Zuma is so seized by the spirit that he is getting kitted out to captain a soccer team in a charity event. The Homecoming Revolution, which tries to get emigré South Africans (mainly white professionals) to return home, reports that the combination of World Cup euphoria and austerity measures in the countries they’ve gone to will result in an increase to 39,000 returnees this year and 120,000 next year.
South Africa, after the long years of boycotts, sanctions and isolation, loves hosting a big event – the rugby World Cup in 1995, the African Cup of Nations, the cricket World Cup and now this. Inevitably, carried away by the current mood, the country is now determined to bid for the 2020 Olympics. If successful development was all about throwing parties and welcoming the guests, South Africa would soon overtake all the Asian tigers.